September 1998
Portuguese Language


According to many Portuguese people 160 million Brazilians speak the language wrongly. Are all Brazilians illiterate? Would they all be bilingual if they had to learn Portuguese?

A. Fabres

My translation course confirmed what I already suspected: When we say that we speak Portuguese it is as if we were lying! Most Brazilians in the class were having problems apart, of course, from those who were already accustomed to continental Portuguese. But I will not be talking about them as those `bilingual people' did not experience any trouble at all. Usually, they are the ones who ask: Are you used to having Portuguese people around? And when I say `no' they tell me that that is why! But if I have to get used to them to understand what they say then we don't speak the same language.

When he couldn't recognise our vocabulary, our teacher would say: "Poor you, already forgot your language!" Sometimes the class was so chaotic that it was hilarious. I have never seen a teacher finding so many mistakes!

I am not saying we never made mistakes, we did, I am talking about differences in vocabulary, punctuation, sentence patterns and idiomatic expressions. They are real. When all those things are considered to be mistakes there isn't one single Brazilian in the right.

Imagine the student's frustration! Some abandoned the course, others resigned to the fact that they had forgot their own language. Some, like myself, took the opportunity to learn about the extent of the changes we have made to the language in the last decades. It is a lesson we will never forget. I believe that if the class was in Italian instead—a language I have never studied but understand well—I would have done better. Unfortunately, for the Portuguese, we Brazilians do not speak or write Portuguese anymore. This is an undeniable fact!

The French call it brésilien, and that is not because they don't know that in Brazil we speak Portuguese but simply because they recognise the difference. Very often, it is the Brazilians themselves who ignore the fact, maybe because of those 20 years of military ruling that isolated us from the rest of the world. Only now can we see how we changed the language during that period.

Those academics, purists and nostalgic—Brazilians and Portuguese—insisting that we spoke the original Portuguese cannot see that it is already too late to go back. The only thing we can do now is to try and establish a certain standard for our `Portuguese' and, this is up to our government and the Academia Brasileira de Letras (Brazilian Academy of Letters). If we did that we would certainly end the snobbery and, the intimidation we still face with things like: `poor you, already forgot your language.'

Nobody needs to be a genius to see that the unificação ortográfica (orthographic standardisation) will never work. There are several reasons for that. The main one is the fact that we'd rather forget our colonial past. We will continue to resist those regulations, it is psychological. We will carry on writing purê not puré, mídia not média (media), fato not facto (fact), vitrine not vitrina (window-shop), xampu not shampô (shampoo), Aids not Sida.

There are differences in vocabulary too: parasol (Brazil), chapéu de sol (Portugal); arrecadar (Brazil), angariar (Portugal)—to raise (money). There are also problems with words that are spelt and pronounced in the same way with totally different meaning, like terno (Brazilian) and fato (Portuguese), a men's suit. The word fato in Brazilian is the new version of the word facto (fact). The Portuguese say viajar para o estrangeiro (to travel abroad) while we say viajar para o exterior. If you use the word exterior in that context in an exam, Portuguese teachers would consider it a mistake.

To make the confusion even worse you can find differences in masculine and feminine forms, such as: o caixa eletrônico in Brazil as opposed to a caixa eletrônica in Portugal (cash-point machines).

The list is huge and it keeps growing, making things even more confusing. During the whole length of the course I had the impression that I was dealing with a different Latin language. It was exhausting and the teacher had to work double. Hadn't he insisted that they are the same he would have had less trouble.

The truth is that teachers and translators are the ones who most benefit from that situation, they are still been offered—and accepting—work which they should refuse if they don't know much about Brazilian Portuguese. Never mind holding a diploma in translation, it is practically impossible to follow the evolution of the language in both countries at the same time. The same apply to us in relation to Portugal, but the Portuguese are the ones most interested in saying that `Brazilian language' does not exist. It is advantageous to play with the insecurity of those Brazilians who, through lack of vision, still do not acknowledge the importance of embracing those differences.

It is still true that most employment agencies and companies in various fields haven't yet realised what is going on. They still believe those people who maintain that the difference between the two versions is minimal. Those people are not helping translators or anybody. They are not professionals, they ignore the implications those differences can have for employers. A company (or employment agency) searching to hire a Portuguese speaker—a translator or an employee—to do work related with Brazil, for example, should be informed that they could end up in the losers side.

By principle I refuse to translate into Portuguese if it is for Portugal, because I do not know enough about it and never lived there, it would not sound right. However, things are changing, now the best translation agencies are aware of the changes and are adopting a new attitude to recruitment of translators and interpreters, choosing them according to their nationality as well. I think it is high time we took responsibilities for our problems, being they social, economical, the bad and good points and our language.

We must stop behaving like victims, the colonised land. We do not need to obey Portugal in any way.

Don't we celebrate our Independence Day every year? When a culture accepts itself it imposes more respect and that is what the people need. Only then can they change for better.

The English and the Americans have already established their linguistic differences and the famous English joke about it: `we are two nations divided by a common language' could well apply to us. As their languages are similar Scandinavians can often understand each other but Norwegian is called Norwegian not Danish. Similar does not mean same.

No language has much value outside its own cultural context, it would lose its meaning. This explains why some of them die whereas others survive. Since the beginning of the times, cultural, geographic, demographic and financial aspects have played a vital part in the changes, survival or death of a language. It is such a powerful means of communication, sometimes used as a weapon to oppress people.

The invention of the dictionary in the 17th century is very recent considering that the vocabulary in use at the time was already vast. That was the most efficient way to preserve it but it is impossible to avoid the insurgence of new words, after all most of what is in dictionaries was invented by the average person not the academics. Every time a dictionary is revised, new popular expressions and words are included. The versatility of human beings knows no limits.

It is, of course, normal for academics to try and maintain the standards of a language as found in the books but they cannot ignore the reasons why it changes. The Catholic Church does not recognise divorce, it is as if the word did not exist, although it is a fact of modern life and affects millions of families every year. A word had to be invented in order to defame it.

All throughout Brazil people use the word cachaça for água ardente (sugar-cane spirit), but only recently the producers acquired the right to use the word cachaça in the bottles. As foreign importers kept saying that they liked the latter best, the authorities decided to allow the producers to use the name officially. Once again the opinion of outsiders was necessary for a practical change to happen. That is the proof that we still are linguistically oppressed and conditioned to the past. It is obvious that the word cachaça is more original as also is caipirinha (margarita made with cachaça) instead of coquetel de água ardente com limão verde (lime and água ardente cocktail). It is more practical, more Brazilian.

English language is also very practical with small words. Maybe that is the reason of its success. It does reflect the Anglo-Saxon system very well in its dislike for bureaucracy, whereas Latin countries seem to thrive in it. Names for example: Anthony becomes Tony, practical, approachable. Rodney becomes Rod, Elizabeth becomes Liz and so on.

Some English people say that when Brazilian authors use their entire names in their books it does not help to promote Brazilian literature in Anglo-Saxon cultures because it is difficult for them to pronounce and memorise those long names. Although the same people maintained that Jorge Amado or Paulo Coelho it is already better. As for the nicknames we give to football players such as Pelé, Zico, Sócrates and Zagallo they find it original and humorous. Outside Brazil practically nobody knows the real name of Pelé.

Those nicknames are great because they express originality, humour and creativity. Some years ago, in France, there was an attempt to launch a French cocktail, which was a copy of our caipirinha. It didn't work because the Brazilians claimed their rights to it, fair enough. That is yet another reason for us to acknowledge and take responsibilities for what we are changing. Many Portuguese students also think that our differences should be recognised and accepted, one of them even talked about his frustration with a Brazilian teacher. That suggests that the problem exists in both senses and it is pointless to try to ignore it. Many students are wasting time because of it.

A mother tongue is that of the motherland, which we learn instinctively. Ours is Brazilian. It is normal that we have words of diverse origins because we all have different origins. Not only we are in another continent we are also a melting pot. This linguistic battle the Portuguese have already lost. Numbers speak for themselves, a mistake made by 160 million people soon becomes a rule.

A. Fabres is a Brazilian linguist who lives in London.


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